"My wife doesn't automatically trump my other relationships," Carson told me over the phone.
From the outside looking in, he says, his marriage looks pretty normal—he and his wife share a home together, they have two children. But Carson, who's asked not to disclose his last name to protect his family's privacy, has other relationships as well. Not all of them are sexual, and not all of them are romantic. But he prioritizes each of them according to the individual agreements he made in those relationships.
With his wife, he's agreed to raise children and maintain their home. But with other people, he may go on dates or vacations—even if there's no sex involved. He avoids developing expectations for his relationships, as well.
"When we have expectations on other people like: 'I expect that because you love me today, you'll love me tomorrow.' Those expectations limit personal autonomy for the people you have the relationships with," Carson says. Abandoning those expectations makes him appreciate the connections he has in the moment.
The lack of hierarchy and minimal expectations Carson puts on relationships, romantic or otherwise, define his identity as a relationship anarchist—a term that makes some people in the polyamory community roll their eyes, shift uncomfortably in their seat, or say, "wait, that's me."
Nicholas, a 38-year-old account manager in the Bay Area, told me over the phone that he had never actually heard the term "relationship anarchy" before I mentioned it. He approached me to talk after I had posted to a Facebook polyamory group asking for relationship anarchists. But once I described it to him, he said it fit his approach to polyamory well.
"My first open relationship was when I was 17 in high school. I was dating a girl who had another friend at another school. She went to prom with him," Nicholas, who asked we not use his last name to protect his partners' privacy, said. "I remember the group that we were with—which was mostly revolving around a club at school—we were at lunch and we made lines between who dated each other."
Now Nicholas has a partner that he says other people in polyamory would recognize as a "primary partner," since they live together, share expenses, and do all the typical stuff that primary partners do. Basically the same stuff very committed monogamous couples do, save for the dating other people thing.
But he and his partner reject the idea of a hierarchy—that they need to put their relationship before all others.
"I see relationship the anarchy thing, it's almost a generational thing. It's the same ideas, but it's just like 'no we even have less rules,'" Nicholas said.
A lack of rules and hierarchy gives some people pause. Eric FitzMedrud, a couple's therapist in Los Altos, CA, counsels many couples in open relationships. He's found that agreements based around establishing expectations in a relationship and maintaining the needs of each partner helps couples maintain their sense of security when exploring polyamory.
He was skeptical that very many people would be willing to minimize their expectations in a relationship, but didn't think it was necessarily unhealthy.
"I think there's something ethical in that process, trying to manage the other person's expectations. They know they're swimming against some possible expectations, and I think that's great," FitzMedrud said. "But there may be a smaller pool of potential partners who may be willing to give up those expectations."
Some also think relationship anarchy can open up the space to be inconsiderate. Over coffee, Riss Rosado, a 30-year-old polyamorous freelance video editor, told me that likes having a hierarchy to her relationships, only because it works for her. "My rule is that, above all, I take care of he and I, that is a boundary that makes sense to me. So anybody who joins my little web needs to abide that, they need to know that John comes first. I haven't had to interrupt many things with my secondaries because of that."
"I do think that the poly community as a whole is moving toward not having such strict hierarchy—less couple-centric."
Rosado has a friend who identifies as a relationship anarchist. She told me a story about how her friend slept with another friend "on a whim." Upon telling her other partners, who are also all relationship anarchists, about this, one of them was "distinctly not ok with it."
"If it's what you ascribe to, then I feel like you can't be hurt about it," Rosado said.
Though the concept of anarchy refers to self-governance in the absence of an overarching authority, culturally the term invokes chaos.
And that's why the hosts of the Multiamory podcast, Dedeker Winston, Jase Lindgren, and Emily Matlack, shy away from the term.
"As far as relationship anarchy principles go, we're totally on board," Winston, 29, says in a Skype interview with the group. "With polyamory, the emphasis is very much on your romantic relationships. Someone who is a relationship anarchist may do that."
I initially met the trio at the Future of Monogamy and Non-Monogamy conference at the University of California, Berkeley. Amid the more stereotypical ageing free love hippies and reformed swingers one might associate with the Bay Area polyamory scene, Winston, Lindgren, and Matlack were different. To me, they represented the next generation of polyamorous practitioners in an ecosystem of millennials delaying marriage and children, and for whom terms like "friends with benefits" and other casual relationships were old hat by the end of college.
Which is not to say that relationship anarchy is the same thing as the oft-maligned "hookup culture" associated with millennials. Winston, Lindgren, and Matlack are extremely thoughtful to the point of being almost academic in their approach to non-monogamy. They started their podcast to bring a fresh young voices to the polyamory community and to advocate non-monogamy to the rest of the population.
"I do think that the poly community as a whole is moving toward not having such strict hierarchy—less couple-centric," Lindgren says. "But I'm not so convinced that we're moving through RA in the real sense, of getting rid of this distinction between romantic partners and friendships."
All three said they've found benefits from removing those distinctions. They illustrated an example that sometimes friends get certain benefits by being friends, like maybe you're more forgiving of them. But your partner may get more of your time. Relationship anarchy questions all of that, and emphasizes open, honest communication between everyone in your life, not just the people you're sleeping with.
It also allows for more unusual relationships.
"What I like about the relationship anarchy principle is the idea that certain relationships don't have to fall into prescribe roles," Winston says. "Like co-parenting: maybe the idea of raising a child and coparenting with your best friend and roommate is more appealing than doing that with your romantic partner, and why the heck not?"
Carson noted that relationship anarchy also appeals to people who are asexual or aromantic; it gives validity to deep connections that may not be sexual or romantic when people with these orientations can otherwise feel like society invalidates their connections with other people.
Embracing relationship anarchy can be tough, specifically when it comes to keeping expectations low.
It can take a bit of nihilism, according to the Multiamory podcasters, to let go of those expectations. There's really no such thing as security, even in traditional monogamy. People fall out of love, they grow apart, they cheat, or they die. There are many ways the security we thought we had can slip away.
"It's easy to slip into that nihilistic space when you start to acknowledge that everything I thought was secure is an illusion," Winston says. "Instead of looking at that as a depressing thing, it can be a really freeing thing. Any sense of security I have can't really come from another person or another thing outside of myself."
For Carson, it's spiritual.
"It's sort of a spiritual path in that you have to appreciate what you have right now, because you can't expect that things will be like that tomorrow. So you're really thankful for the connection you have in the moment, and not focused on the future. And not expecting that to play out over the long term."